The term “anti-systemic movements” was commonly used 25 years ago to characterize forces on the left in revolt against capitalism. Today, it has not lost relevance in the West, but its meaning has changed. The movements of revolt that have multiplied over the past decade no longer rebel against capitalism, but against neoliberalism—deregulated financial flows, privatized services, and escalating social inequality, that specific variant of the reign of capital set in place in Europe and America since the 1980s. The resultant economic and political order has been accepted all but indistinguishably by governments of the center-right and center-left, in accordance with the central tenet of la pensée unique, Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no alternative.” Two kinds of movement are now arrayed against this system; the established order stigmatizes them, whether from the right or left, as the menace of populism.
It is not by chance that these movements first arose in Europe rather than the United States. Sixty years after the Treaty of Rome, the reason is clear. The common market of 1957, an outgrowth of the coal-and-steel community of the Schuman Plan (designed both to prevent any reversion to a century of Franco-German hostilities and to consolidate post-war economic growth in western Europe), was the product of a period of full employment and rising popular incomes, the entrenchment of representative democracy, and the development of welfare systems. Its commercial arrangements impinged very little on the sovereignty of the nation-states composing it, which were strengthened rather than weakened. Budgets and exchange rates were determined domestically, by parliaments accountable to national electorates, in which politically contrasting policies were vigorously debated. Attempts by the Commission in Brussels to aggrandize itself were famously rebuffed by Paris. Not only France under Charles de Gaulle but, in its own more muted fashion, West Germany under Konrad Adenauer, pursued foreign policies independent of the United States and capable of defying it.
The end of the trente glorieuses brought a major change in this construction. From the mid-1970s, the advanced capitalist world entered a long downturn, as analyzed by the American historian Robert Brenner: lower growth rates and slower increases in productivity, decade by decade, less employment and greater inequality, punctuated by sharp recessions. From the 1980s, starting in the UK and the US, and gradually spreading to Europe, policy directions were reversed: Welfare systems were cut back, public industries and services privatized, and financial markets deregulated. Neoliberalism had arrived. In Europe, this came over time to take a uniquely rigid institutional form: The number of member states in what became the European Union multiplied more than fourfold, incorporating a vast low-wage zone in the east.
From monetary union in 1990 to the Stability Pact in 1997, then the Single Market Act in 2011, the powers of national parliaments were voided in a supranational structure of bureaucratic authority shielded from popular will, just as the ultraliberal economist Friedrich Hayek had prophesied. With this machinery in place, draconian austerity could be imposed on helpless electorates, under the joint direction of the Commission and a reunified Germany, now the most powerful state in the union, where leading thinkers candidly announce its vocation as continental hegemon. Externally, over the same period, the EU and its members ceased to play any significant role in the world at variance with US directives, becoming the advance guard of neo–Cold War policies towards Russia set by the US and paid for by Europe.